The Queen could hear his voice, so close and low in her ear, over and over saying the same thing, "Silly woman, you must stop now being so silly." But she couldn’t stop. Something had grabbed her and seemed determined to shake her empty; shake her until her bones came apart from one another; shake her flesh loose from those bones; shake her to pieces. Let it rattle her apart. Maybe then she could die. Jilly had not often been called a silly woman. Only by Ben. No one else would have dared. When they were younger, it was something Ben had said to her. “What a silly, improbable thing you are,” he’d whisper, “How’d you come to be in my life?"
They’d been in bed the first time he’d said it, his lips a soft rasp against the curl of her ear, those words sighing into her as he moved on top of her, and she’d felt the smile he pressed to her cheek. She’d turned her head, found his smile with her mouth, and kissed it. It didn’t seem possible to him back then, how it was that he could have ended up with Jillian Lane as his lover. It had to be a joke of some kind. A bit of life’s silliness that would pass. He never believed for a moment, once their affair had begun, that she would stay with him. And he wasn’t far wrong. It was a kind of happenstance that had led to their being together, and it had all started as a joke. A cruel joke, not a kind or silly one. Jillian had come over to him at her brother Dudley’s party only because her friends had dared her to. So maybe there was some silliness in it all. In the setup, a scene from a romantic comedy; self-involved princess is dared by her shallow friends to flirt with the shabby striver at a fancy party and they end up falling in love. But her intention lacked that brand’s saccharine innocence. She meant to embarrass Ben Shapiro, to show him his place. And while the Hollywood version of their meeting would have leaned on the culpability of her friends in this prank, the truth was she’d not needed any urging to make her approach. She’d been bored. Dudley’s party was as spectacularly over the top as they usually were, but she’d been coming to these parties since he started throwing them in high school. When she spotted Ben with a red and white stripped box of popcorn in one hand and a cocktail glass with a pink elephant swizzle stick in the other, she’d been otherwise occupied picking at the details of the celebration as if they were loose threads in the plot of one of those movies she was just about to play a scene from. “The acrobats, are we meant to believe they’re rag dolls or dead prostitutes?” Her friends had cackled. They were cacklers. Laughter was too robust, too uninhibited for them. Giggling was childish and smacked of innocence. Cackling, they’d decided early in high school, would be the thing. Ironic cackling, as if they were a coven of witches. Parlee had been the first one to give it a try. Parlee was alway the first one to give everything a try. Whether it were booze or drugs or sex or a new fashion, Parlee could be counted on to cross the frontier into any questionable territory that the rest of them weren’t yet certain was up to their snuff. Having spent their shared childhood falling off jungle gyms and roof eves; defying parental limitations of every stripe; piercing her ears, wearing red lipstick, getting birth control, learning to ride a motorcycle, being tattooed, and running away with a band; Parlee was their collective coal mine canary. She could try and fail in front of them as often as she liked, and suffer no loss of status as long as she followed a single simple rule: She must laugh first and loudest at herself when her adventures went awry. “Am I such an idiot?” was a classic Parlee-ism. As was her own response to that call, “Yes, yes I am such an idiot." She had dozens of these self-recriminations. “Can you believe I am wearing this?” she might say as she walked into a room sporting a pair of indigo denim culottes. “These are the most idiotic thing I could find." Or, on a gurney being put into the back of an ambulance, her Moto Guzzi planted in the windshield of a VW Bug she’d tried to ride over on a dare, “How stupid was that?” As long as Jilly could remember, they had been using Parlee’s name in all parts of speech. “Stop being such a Parlee,” one of them might say to another if they, for instance, showed up wearing cateye sunglasses that they had never before worn in their life. “That is so Parlee” could refer to someone deciding to drink nothing but Irish cream shots all night long or to trying to catch an improbably huge wave in their summer surf class between sophomore and junior years. “You totally Parleed that one,” could mean both clunking an easy layup or sinking a ridiculous three-pointer when they had gone out for eighth grade basketball, become the starting five, and dominated the Southern Gold Prep Region. So when Parlee first tried out a cackle in front of them, it could have gone either way. She’d given it a go in Advanced Trigonometry when their substitute, Mr. Chee, who really had no business teaching anything above calculous, had confused inverse cosine function and inverse tangent function. Tze, whose family was from China, had scribbled a note and flashed it to the others: "I thought Asians were supposed to be good at math. So embarrassing!" And Parlee, having waited for this opportunity after weeks of practicing in front of a mirror and into a recorder, had cackled. A high, rasping crone’s malicious enjoyment that rose almost to a shriek before strangling itself. There had been a moment of paralyzed disbelief in the classroom, the cream of Addelston Academy’s super talented crop of over achievers, a paralysis that finally broke with a tremor of laughter that may have been released by Parlee’s cackle, but was somehow clearly and entirely at Mr. Chee’s expense. The cackle was immediately adopted by them all, and they began a campaign to refine and define its component parts. The willfulness of it, how it knowingly embraced evil, the dense layers of ironic reference to hags of every stripe. How it commented on its own mean-ness. In years to come they would develop a vocabulary of cackles that could be applied to most any situation. Parlee, the maven of the tongue, had delivered what they all agreed was the most eloquent and astonishing of all cackles at her mom’s funeral. She had slipped it in amongst the general weeping; melancholy and harsh, subtly judgmental, subsiding into a whine. It had spoken quite clearly to them all, Finally, that wretched junkie bully is dead, but it’s sad not to have a mom. By the evening that Jilly met Ben, they were all past masters of the cackle, and were perfectly capable of holding conversations, full of judgmental opinions and cruel insinuations, that sounded to anyone else like the cacophony of a flock of wicked birds. The specific burst of ill humor that Ben heard issue from their pool-side banquet had put a damp chill in his ear, like the wet willies his brother Claude had liked to give him on cold mornings as they’d jostled one another for room in the tiny bathroom, hurrying to get ready so they could run down the stairs of their apartment building and catch the bus to school. He’d told all this to Jilly many times over the ensuing years. It was, after all, part of the story of How They Met. Like many couples this tale had a well rehearsed public version that came, in time, to eclipse the details of the more intimate one they had told to one another during their romance. Unlike all but a very few couples, the story also had an official version and an endless number of fictional versions spun from whole cloth by persons who hadn’t even been there that evening. Liberal interpretation of one’s life was part of the cost of being royal. Jilly had grown up paying that price, and Ben would come to see that tolerating the lies and gossip about ones own life that came with fame was an easy enough burden to bear. Hearing that cackle at Dudley’s party, a party that Ben hardly knew how he’d come to be invited to, he’d felt that wet chill in his ear, and knew, with the certainty of a young man not at all unfamiliar with mockery, that he was being laughed at. It would be years before he would understand the tribute that twined with derision. He didn’t yet understand that being singled out for such treatment meant that there was something about him and/or his ways that made people feel uncomfortable, antagonized. The fear of the other, the unknown. That quality of discomfort that led many an eccentric to double down on their oddities and labor to make them ever more pronounced once they realized they had somehow missed, by inattention or lack of care, the opportunity to safely hedge a bet on normality. Kept from the game everyone else seemed to know how to play, they, many of them peers from Ben’s youth, played their own games, with rules as arcane as the cackling of Jilly’s friends. Sessions of Dungeons & Dragons played in the lunch room in junior high became a kind of model for living ones life. Be public and belligerent in your nerdiness, let everyone else adapt. Ben would never go so far. Success would make him comfortable in himself, breed confidence, and make it easy enough for him to shed quirks and tastes that he once thought he’d nurture for life. But not yet, not on that night. The cackle had alerted him that some new humiliation was at hand. From long practice he was able to keep himself from instinctively looking for it. After all, that might have been the intention of the cackle, to set him on edge so that he’d peer nervously about the room, looking for the source of that grim amusement; a look on his face that very plainly asked, "Is there a KICK ME sign taped to my back?" Wary inaction was best. If the jibe had already been made, the worst thing he could do would be to give any indication that he knew he was worthy of mockery, ashamed in some way of himself. If the jibe was yet to come, he might still find some way to step from its path. He’d turned, not searching, merely turning toward a table to set down the popcorn box and cocktail that had been thrust upon him and every other guest as they entered the circus tent Dudley had rented for the night’s festivities. He knew these innocent party favors that could be casually enjoyed by most of the guests became ridiculous props in his hands. He carried an aura of seriousness even when he was at his most joyful. A high forehead above thick brows that positively jutted over deep set eyes; he seemed made for brooding on internal mysteries that plagued him night and day. In truth, he had little interest in his own inner workings; the world around him was his great fascination, the world and its people and their lives and how they lived them. The beetle brows hid his eyes from everyone else, leading them to assume that he was absorbed with himself, but it was them he was studying from those miniature caves. Wondering, always, how there could be so many and yet be, all of them, so vastly different from each other. Ben Shapiro loved that variety for itself. He loved humanity. And even though he sometimes despaired at human callousness, he had a constant faith that people could always be better, that they had the capacity to become more than what they were, no matter how petty, vicious or cruel. It was a faith that would be tested to the limit when he became King of America, but it was never lost, not entirely. Still, he could be forgiven, as he turned to set down the popcorn and cocktail on a nearby table, for thinking the absolute worst of Jilly Lane when he found her standing right there behind him, a self-amused smile plucking the corner of her mouth, and another quick and quiet burst of heavily annotated hilarity coming from her infamously talented, smart, athletic, attractive and judgmental passel of friends sprawled along the banquet and making no effort to appear to be doing anything but staring at the two of them as Ben realized he was about to fall face first into a deeply humiliating pile of ridicule. Both the pause and the moment itself seemed gravidly pregnant to him. Though he didn’t take his eyes from hers, for fear that to do so would trigger the kind of sweaty blush that his pale skin was prone to, he was certain that everyone around them had become suddenly aware that something was going on. He and Jilly were so still in that moment, their attention so singularly fixed on one another; and the cackle of her friends, familiar to most of the guests, seemed like an arrow jabbing in their direction, signaling, <em>over there, something super funny is about to happen right there! Had a second passed since he had turned and found her behind him? Two seconds? Five? Ten? Had he already earned a reputation for this scene? The time Ben Shapiro was publicly dumbfounded by the physical presence of a pretty girl. However much time had passed since their eyes had locked, and in truth it was only about a single second, he couldn’t allow more to pass. Every moment would compound whatever happened next. Action must be taken. He took his eyes from hers. He set the box of popcorn and the cocktail glass and its pink elephant swizzle stick on the table. He looked back into her eyes. And for the first time in his life, Ben Shapiro spoke to Jilly Lane. “Can we get out of here? I’m bored, and I’m not really sure why I came in the first place.” As he’d lifted his arm slightly for her to take, it was as if Ben had turned a table on Jillian without her having realized they had been seated together the entire time. Eyes were indeed upon them now. She’d been undercut by Ben Shapiro. Whatever she’d intended, whether to lay him out with a single cutting remark or set him stuttering with a mild flirtation, she’d have to abandon that script and improvise her next lines. Certainly she was more than quick enough; wit, after all, was one of her things. Moliere, Robert Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Jillian Anderson and Nora Ephron; she’d studied them all, her tastes were classical as fuck. If you were quipped by Jillian Lane, you stayed quipped. What had she planned to say to Ben? Nothing, nothing at all. Was there any need for words in this scenario? She thought not. Silence would be most eloquent and elegant. A long stare to simultaneously hypnotize and panic her prey. Let him decide between fight or flight. Whichever it was, she would remain mute. Brooks-esque. Louise, not Albert. No matter how flushed Ben became, no matter how defensively sarcastic, she’d simply gaze at him with a mysterious half-smile floating on her lips. Then, after a few moments of this unendurable (for him) tension, she would reach for the tray of vegan spring rolls on the table next to him, carefully select one, and take a single nibble before turning back to her friends and walking away. "A small misunderstanding there. The young man supposed I had some intent toward him, but it was really the spring rolls I was interested in all along." But the spring rolls were out now. That wouldn’t play. Nor would quizzical silence. There was too great a challenge in his response to her non-approach. The openess of it, the honesty, the corny courtliness of the offered arm, and the assumption that they were on the same wavelength. It was that last that galled her. "Can we get out of here? I’m bored, and I’m not really sure why I came in the first place." As if they’d come together to the party. As if they’d known each other for years. Which, in fact, they had. Known each other for years, that is. Ben had been enrolled at Addleston from seventh grade, a year younger than his classmates, until he matriculated to Harvard, two years younger than his fellow seniors, having been skipped yet another grade. Jillian had been in eighth grade when he was enrolled, two years older than the new kid, an honors student in her own right, and unimpressed by yet another prodigy scholarship student from somewhere well east of Brentwood. When he’d been moved into her class in Sophomore year he’d become something of an irritant to them all because he skewed the Addleston grading curve by a few tenths of a point. Not that she ever mentioned that slight pique. Good grades, excellent grades, were only worthwhile to the extent that they came without apparent effort. Ben Shapiro absolutely grunted and sweated his way to summa cum laude. Was there ever a free period when he was not seen working on his laptop, flipping through textbooks with highlighter poised over the page, interrogating faculty as they tried to non-verbally signal to him that they really needed to get to the bathroom and pee before the next bell? Not that he’d been a social exile or anything. They didn’t do that at Addleston. Esprit de corp was a core value. One’s fellow students were one’s peers. They were bound together by this shared experience and by the certainty that they were, all of them, exceptional, and that any one of them might be of great usefulness to one’s own success at some point in the future. Even Ben Shapiro. Studious Ben. Glowering Ben. His intensity in lectures matched by his furiously undisciplined, but winning, stroke in the fifteen-hundred meter freestyle. Even he might be of use some day and could not be publicly quipped upon beyond the point of a friendly laugh or two. At Addleston they saved their savagery for the faculty and those wretches at Manchester Academy. But they were no longer at Addleston. They were home from college, Christmas break of their fourth years. And she’d not intended any great humiliation for Ben, just a subtle prodding to remind him of what it was like here, no matter how big a shit he might have become at Harvard. Truly, if she hadn’t been so bored she probably wouldn’t have noticed he was there at all. And there it was again. "Can we get out of here? I’m bored, and I’m not really sure why I came here in the first place." Not just as if they’d come together. Not just as if they’d know each other for years. No, worse than that. It was as if he spoke her mind for her. It was as if, all the years they’d swung about the outer circumferences of one another’s orbits; four rows to the right in Dynamics of Human Anatomy, five rows back in Robotics, two rows up in Greek Drama; at Addleston dances, she at the heart of the floor, he at the rim; back to back in adjoining booths at the Silver Spoon diner, both dimly aware of the conversation happening behind them; shooting past one another on the way to and from the backyard keg at some of the larger house parties; hearing rumors of each other’s college successes and setbacks while home for winter break; it was as if all those years he had been paying attention to her, as if the dark eyes had been gathering her light, separating it into information about her nature, and storing it away for future use. So that on some future evening he would be prepared for disaster if she should ever threaten to go nova in his presence, he would know how to outshine her. Asshole. Asshole. And now, how much time had passed since he spoke to her? Three seconds? Five? Ten? How long had she been standing speechless since he asked his stupid question? How long, it was in truth only about a single second, had she been gaping at him like a stock mean girl who has just been taken down a peg by the class nerd? She reached for his neck with both hands. Ben would have flinched. If he had been anything but riven with fear after offering his arm to Jillian Lane and asking her to leave a party with him (what had he been thinking?), he would have flinched, certain that she was about to choke the life from him for his temerity. Instead, he tipped his chin up a bit, baring his throat. Was it a cur’s surrender after he’d misguidedly challenged an alpha? Chin up, "I’m done here, kill me if you must." Did the gesture in any way alter Jilly’s intention from what it had been when she raised her hands? Did Ben’s chin raised five millimeters bring the encounter to a different conclusion that it might have? They would both laugh at the question if asked. Of course not. They were a grown man and a grown woman, not children on a playground. Certainly it had never been in Jillian’s mind to strangle Ben, and certainly Ben had felt no twist of fear in his guts that had made him offer himself to the slaughter. But their eyes had still been locked in that moment, and in that moment, whatever Jilly might have meant to do, Ben could see murder in her eyes; and no matter whether Ben meant to provoke her mercy or not, Jilly had seen surrender in his. Jilly reached for his neck with both hands, and, as if anticipating what she would do, Ben raised his chin a bit, and she took the ends of the bowtie he was wearing, an affectation he would never shed, and gave the ends a sharp tug, evening them out and drawing them taut, before giving the lapels of his jacket a slight whisk with the back of her hands. “Yeah, let’s go. I’m done here.” But she’d not been quite done, she was a Princess of America after all, and would do things as she wished. She offered him her arm, ignoring the one he’d proffered, and let her smile grow a fraction in genuine pleasure as he took it, and walked out of Dudley’s circus party with Ben Shapiro firmly on her arm, a grip he’d not relinquished until she’d found him dead in the garden with a pinkish foam of blood on his lips and chin, and a urine stain on the front of his pants. The Queen of America wailed. Her King was dead. Her Ben was dead.